Friday, September 28, 2007

THE WHO, 30 Years Maximum R&B box set
Melody Maker, 1994

For a while there, it seemed that The Who had dipped out
of rock memory, become a band that virtually no one even
thought about. They seemed to have the same relation vis-a-
vis the eternally cool and current Beatles & Stones that,
say, Deep Purple have to Sabbath & Zep: massive then,
monstrously uninfluential thereafter. In recent years,
though, The Who have slowly seeped back as a reference point,
what with Urge Overkill's Live At Leeds sharp-dressed
rifferama and the mod iconography of groups at diverse as
Flowered Up, These Animal Men, Blur, D-Generation, and Primal
Scream (that ad for 'Rocks' featuring Keith Moon).

Personally, I find there's something resolutely
unloveable about The Who, although why I'm not sure. Pete
Townshend's mid-life crisis and endless maudlin' musings on
lost youth? Roger Daltrey's voice, face, and fish-farm?
Just the FACT (I haven't heard 'em) that John Entwhistle
released FIVE solo LP's? Perhaps the real reason is the boy-
of The Who cult (and of their legacy, The Jam, Secret
Affair etc). Somehow it's obvious that way fewer women cared
about The Who than The Stones, Beatles or even Led Zep.

Still, I love the mod-psych bands who never made it--The
Eyes, John's Children, The Creation--so I can't logically
refute the thrill of "I Can't Explain", "Anyway Anyhow
Anywhere", "Substitute". At their 1965/66 height, The Who's
white R&B is so amped-up and amphetamine-uptight it's coming
apart at the seams. "My Generation" remains as naffly
irresistible as Steppenwolf's equally naive "Born To Be
Wild"; Moon's ramshackle surf-drums, exploding everywhichway
like Mitch Mitchell of the Experience, Townshend's slash-and-
scald rhythm guitar, Entwhistle's bass-lunges and Daltrey's
speed-freak stutter, all add up to an immaculately chaotic
enactment of mod's "smashed, blocked" aggression, its rage-
to-live and hunger for action.

With the arrival of psychedelia, The Who toyed with the
era's fashionable tropes of androgyny ("I'm A Boy"'s Frank
Spencer scenario, where mummy won't admit he's not a girl),
and regression (the fey "creepy-crawly" terrors of "Boris The
Spider"). There were gems here (the effete all-wanked-out
vocals of the masturbation ode "Pictures Of Lily"), but
mostly The Who's acid-phase is unusually unappetising. "I
Can See For Miles" turns mod misogny into visionary paranoia,
and the swooping phased guitars of "Armenia" thrill, but the
pallid, fey vocals of this period are pretty pukey.

Then the bombast begins in earnest. Daltrey quickly
swells into the least likeable white R&B singer this side of
Joe Cocker, while Townshend's songs bloat up like houses with
too many extensions. The Who's progressive aspirations are
all on the level of structure rather than playing or texture
(which remained coarse R&B); the result is a horrid fusion of
prog-rock and pub rock. So, apart from "Tommy"'s one
genuinely hymnal aria ("See Me Feel Me") and the just-about-
takeable epic-ness of their post-counterculture allegory
"Won't Get Fooled Again", a long blank void ensues--one whose
continuance seemed increasingly mercenary as the Seventies
proceed. Even at their most haggard, The Stones could re-
ignite with the lubricious raunch of a "Start Me Up". The
Who's equivalent twilight hit is "You Better You Bet", a song
with only one fan in the entire world, Taylor Parkes, and
only then for the most perverse, "it's so bad, it's....
really MINDBOGGLINGLY bad" of reasons.

30 Years Maximum R & B
? Break that down, and it works
out at roughly 4 and a half years of adolescent intensity and
two and a half decades of graceless middle-age.


Thursday, September 27, 2007

THE DOORS, Perception (40th Anniversary Box)
Blender, 2006 [director's cut]

The Doors are the perfect band for when you’re seventeen, a time when you’re waking up to life’s possibilities, the future’s a wide-open frontier, and ten thousand volts of libido pulse through your flesh. In that highly impressionable and lusty state, a Doors classic like “The End”, with its Oedipal psychodrama and entrancing guitar-as-sitar aura of faux-Oriental mystery, sounds like the most profound and intense thing you’ll ever hear. Factor in the attractive shape of Jim Morrison’s life arc, its mythic surge through reckless hedonism to early death ensuring no embarrassingly twilight-of-the-idol comebacks or je-regrette-everything VH1 confessionals, and it’s easy to see why The Doors endure as the ultimate band for clever teenagers craving music that rocks hard but has some book-learnin’ under its belt.

Yet there are potent arguments in favour of the proposition that nobody much older than seventeen should really have an ounce of time for the man or his band. Wasn’t Morrison a real pig of a human being, a (literally) stinking drunk egomaniac who rampaged over most everybody he had any dealings with? Aren’t his poet-as-prophet pretensions insufferably clunky and self-aggrandising? When he goes into “erotic politician”/ counterculture-revolutionary mode (“Five To One”, “The Unknown Soldier”) doesn’t your skin just crawl off your bones and leave the room in embarrassment? Finally, the music itself--most of it’s kinda dated and overblown, surely? All those epic song-suites like “Celebration of the Lizard”, or worse, the dreary bleary blooze of “Backdoor Man” and “Maggie McGill”?

Yet Morrison is hardly short for company when it comes to rock’n’roll assholes who overdid the liquor, while his psychedelic doggerel is really no more cringe-worthy than John Lennon in LSD mode. People always forget Jimbo’s sense of humor, manifested in his surreal ad-libs-- “cobra to my left, leopard to my right” in “The Soft Parade”--and the sheer zest with which he threw himself into his shaman-as-buffoon persona. As for the music--most it still sounds pretty darn glorious.

It remains an unusual sound, not just because of the lead-instrument prominence of Ray Manzarek’s ornate keyboards but because of the way The Doors combined driving rhythm-and-blues with a cinematic clarity, thanks to spacious, glistening arrangements and production (more vivid than ever in this fabulously remastered incarnation). Robbie Krieger is an under-rated guitarist, his solos elegantly restrained, piercingly poignant, and mercifully succinct, while John Densmore’s drumming is deft enough to make a waltz rhythm swing on “Shaman’s Blues.”

The meat of the sound is hard-funking blues, but the Doors salted in all kinds of unlikely flavours: flamenco on “Spanish Caravan”, musique concrete on “Horse Latitudes”, Weimar-era cabaret with their cover of Brecht & Weill’’s “Alabama Song”, cocktail jazz with “Riders on the Storm”. They even bizarrely anticipate disco with one segment of the audacious song-suite “The Soft Parade”

Perception contains all six studio albums the Doors recorded before Morrison’s death, bolstered with the inevitable out-takes (a highlight of which is the demo prototype of “Celebration of the Lizard”) and partnered with DVDs of performance footage. You can retrace the band’s journey from the bold entrance of The Doors (their best album, if suffering slightly from over-exposure) through Strange Days (their darkest and most psychedelic album), onto Waiting For The Sun (their most confused and least satisfying), The Soft Parade (their funniest and most under-rated) and the alleged return-to-bluesy form of Morrison Hotel (their dreariest and most over-rated, while still containing plenty of gems) before winding up with LA Woman (their most accomplished and poignant). The latter’s title track, a freeway-rolling travelogue across Los Angeles with Morrison imagining their home city as a sad-eyed woman, is a last gasp of ragged glory that--and this is a rare example of the benefits of knowing your rock history--sounds all the more grand and moving because the singer wouldn’t be much longer for this world.

Morrison’s version of “the blues” owed as much to Frank Sinatra as Muddy Waters, and his sonorous majesty of tone and commanding cadences made him one of rock’s true originals as a vocalist. One measure of this eminence is how so many of the legion of Jim-itators are rock greats in their own right. Iggy Pop converted Morrison into the pure sexless monomania of punk rock, while Patti Smith adapted his persona to become the world’s first female rocker-as-shaman. Joy Division’s Ian Curtis translated the baritone-booming doomy side of The Doors into Goth, while Echo & The Bunnymen and Simple Minds conversely picked up on the music’s panoramic grandeur and wonderlust. And Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell updated Morrison’s excess-as-the-road-to-the-palace-of-wisdom shtick.

And is there any wisdom to be found at the end of that highway, or along the way? This is a more pinched era than the Sixties, its sense of adventure and entitlement often seeming impossibly remote. In hindsight, the freedom-chasing can look more like irresponsibility, the lust for “experience” weirdly close to a sort of spiritual greed. Yet in an era when seventeen year olds are confronted by a resurgent Puritanism that seeks to roll back the gains of the Sixties, forces of anti-life looking to constrain the scope for pleasure and adventure, there’s a certain imperishable truth and urgency to Morrison’s warning that “no eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn”. In a strange way, he was a true American patriot, his spirit as large as the land itself.


PATTI SMITH, Horses Horses
Uncut,winter 2005

Some rock records from the ancient past can still cut through purely on their sonic properties, as blasts of time-defying and context-transcending energy. The three Stooges albums spring to mind, as do Sex Pistols’ “Bodies” and “Anarchy” (but not quite “God Save the Queen”). Other rock recordings release their riches only in tandem with a process of historicizing and contextualization. Dylan is a prime example (can anyone honestly argue that “Like A Rolling Stone” still makes it as just pure sound, without all the writing around it and reading into it?) Horses likewise fits this second category of epoch-defining but therefore epoch-bound classics, where you have to reconstruct the original context to get any sense of the record's momentous impact and import. A “naked” listen won’t quite do it. But equally, the more you learn about the artist and the work, the more interesting and audacious Horses seems.

A poet before she was a rocker, Patti Smith worshipped Rimbaud. Horses actually reminds me of a totally different kind of poetry, though--T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” a work so limned with references to mythology you have to read its footnotes to extract its full meaning. Horses, similarly, is an exercise in rock mythography that depends on what preceded it, the whole Sixties adventure. It’s the product of a period of aftermath, pervaded with historical consciousness of the sort that doesn’t exist during the rush of a time when history is actually being made. Patti Smith has less in common with her New York comrades Television (whose music wasn’t about the Sixties so much as of it--an acid-rock flashback) than she does with Bowie and Springsteen, two artists who became stars by assimilating earlier stars. Similarly Smith studied Dylan and Keith Richards, absorbing their stances and mannerisms.

Horses teems with invocations, channelings, and honorings. It opens with “Gloria”, a gloriously surly, horny swagger of white R&B originally recorded by Van Morrison’s group Them, but achieving its largest fame as the song most widely covered by American garage punk bands. Smith added the immortal intro about Jesus Christ “dying for somebody’s sins but not mine,” making for an unsurpassably grand entrance to rock's world stage. Yet covering “Gloria” is best understood as an act of rock criticism (Smith and her guitarist Lenny Kaye both moonlighted as rock writers). It distils into a few minutes of rough-hewn excitement the entire “argument” of Nuggets, Kaye’s famed compilation of mid-Sixties garage punk. Nuggets itself paralleled the heretical re-reading of rock history then being vaunted by Lester Bangs, who hailed the garage bands for their primal teen spirit and pulp simplicity, a raw power lost in the post-Sgt Pepper’s turn towards sophistication. The studio Horses (this reissue’s first disc) now comes book-ended with cover versions. It closes with ‘My Generation,’ originally the B-side of Patti’s debut single “Hey Joe” (sensing a pattern here?). Another slice of ancestor-worship-cum-patricide, the song ends with Patti’s battle cry “we created it, let’s take it over.” The “it” being rock’n’roll, (in a Seventies coma, thanks to corporate bland-out and artistic burn-out, or so the Bangsian proto-punk narrative maintained), while the “we” lies somewhere between “the people” and “youth of today.”

Horses’ conceptual heart resides in three iconographic songs that together attempt to “work through” the legacy of the Sixties. Featuring Tom Verlaine’s aching peals of lead guitar, “Break It Up” is like a lustrous chip off the Marquee Moon block. Lyrically, it’s based on a Smith dream in which she saw Jim Morrison trapped in marble, literally petrified by having been turned into an icon. She exhorts him to smash through the stone and let his spirit fly free (presumably to irrigate and renew rock, like "The Wasteland"'s Fisher King). “Elegie,” the original album’s closer, is a straightforward lament for Hendrix. In between “Break” and “Elegie” comes the stunning song-suite “Land,” which is haunted by both dead Jimmys. “Horses,” the first section, nods to “Horse Latitudes”, The Doors’ pioneering exercise in rock-poetry-meets-studio-weirdness. “Land of A Thousand Dances” invokes rock’n’roll’s early dance crazes, implicitly connecting the teenage frenzy of the Watusi to the mystic delirium of voodoo trance-dancers, whirling dervishes and ecstastic Protestant cults like the Shakers. With its nebulous texture-waft and multi-tracked whispers, the suite’s final section “La Mer (de)” pays oblique tribute to to Hendrix’s oceanic “1983, A Merman I Should Turn To Be”.

“Land” is the most radical piece of music on Horses. But the album’s emotional core deals not with Smith’s rock family tree of godstar ancestors but with her actual real-world folks. A slightly shaky take on reggae, “Redondo Beach” conveys the mounting despair of someone who’s literally lost their lover (on a crowded beach). The song’s real-world inspiration was the disappearance of Smiths’ sister Linda after the pair had a row. “Kimberley” is a tender recollection of her other sister, whom Smith cuddled as a newborn while watching a blazing barn. Most touching of all is “Free Money”, based in her experience of growing up poor in New Jersey and memories of her mother fantasising about winning the lottery. “Oh baby, it would mean so much to me,” yearns Smith, as visions of life without restriction or want dance before her eyes. Kaye’s frantic double-time rhythm chords escalate the urgency and Smith starts percussively incanting images of abundance and freedom, propelling the song in an irresistible rush towards climax. Horses’s most moving song (emotionally and physically), "Free Money" is also the most conventional. And its subject matter--New Jersey working stiffs dreaming of escape--helps explain Smith’s later convergence with Springsteen-style all-American populism, which reached fruition with the Bruce-penned smash “Because the Night”

And then there’s the Horses live remake… As much as one deplores the industry trend of repackaging everybody's favourites in order to induce you to purchase things you already own, it must be conceded that this re-rendition from last year’s Smith-curated Meltdown festival often surpasses in ferocity the somewhat clean-and-tidy sounding studio original. Strangely, the improvised guitarnoise plus freeform poetry epic “Birdland” is reproduced with disconcerting exactness. But the 17 minute take on “Land” clocks in at twice the original length and includes radically expanded and revised lyrics, although it does detour into an annoyingly redundant, if rampant-sounding, reprise of of “Gloria”. “My Generation” is also torched excitingly. At song’s end Smith doesn’t repeat the original “we created it” rallying call, but adapts it for a musical present that's way more bereft and rudderless than 1975 (whose denizens didn’t know they were born, honestly, did they?). “My generation, we had dreams, we had dreams, man… and we fucking created George Bush,” she roars--the logic shaky, the passion loud and clear. “New generations, rise up… take the streets. Make change. The world is yours. Change it, change it.”



Religion is a huge thread running through your work, figuring both as a source of imagery (the album Easter, for instance) and in the larger sense of rock itself as a belief system, a crusade.

“The artist Dan Graham made a film called Rock My Religion and I totally understand that impetus. For me rock’n’roll, all through the Sixties, was a true salvation. Growing up in rural South Jersey, I was estranged from culture. Rock gave voice to my problems, it gave voice to my political ideas, and it was a major source of identification and structure. By the time I moved to New York in the early Seventies, though, some of greatest voices were snuffed out. Dylan had retreated, Joan Baez disappeared somewhere, Hendrix and Morrison were dead. Rock wasn’t engaged in social communication anymore, it had become stadium-oriented, this showbiz lifestyle of limousines and cocaine and glitter. To me that wasn’t rock’n’roll. Rock was people-oriented, it wasn’t supposed to go Hollywood. As a citizen, I was very concerned about what was happening to my genre. I felt like the intimacy and the political voice--the revolutionary voice--of rock’n’roll was getting watered down. So Horses was meant be like Paul Revere riding through the American countryside, waking up the people, saying “the British are coming!” Like, “the revolution is on, don’t sleep through it!”

Alongside religion, your other favorite metaphor for rock’n’roll is war. Hence the Patti Smith Group’s affinity with Detroit rock’n’roll soldiers the MC5 and your self-description on Horses as “some misplaced Joan of Arc.”

“Joan was an inspiration in terms of being someone who fearlessly went after what she believed in, even with all the odds against her. She was poor, couldn’t read or write, and a female during the Middle Ages. She had nothing going for her in terms of her mission, yet she accomplished it. And it’s not just a legend, it’s actual historical fact.”

Despite being friends with William S. Burroughs and a fan of Arthur Rimbaud, you’ve never had much time for that side of rock’n’roll that involves druggy debauchery. Is this a puritanical streak, or part of the military discipline thing?

“I didn’t really drink, I didn’t smoke, and I didn’t take drugs. I didn’t even smoke pot until about 1977, when I got interested in Rastafarianism. My body chemistry has always been so speedy and so psychedelic anyway. My friend Robert Mapplethorpe always shuddered at the thought of me taking acid, because he thought I was such a naturally stoned person. But the other reason is that I just didn’t like the suburbanization of drugs. As a kid I romanticized them as something sacred and secret, reserved for Native American shamen or jazz musicians. Substances should be for spiritual experiences, I thought, not just recreation. I didn’t expect to arrive in New York and see all these suburban kids walking around wasted!”

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Groove, 2001

From Basement Jaxx and the French filter-disco sound to the rediscovery of vocals by everyone from Herbert to Luomo to Photek, the last few years have seen a remarkable renaissance of interest in house music on the part of hipsters. And the primary drive behind this, I think, was a craving for pleasantness, for music that doesn't want to hurt the listener but makes you feel.... nice. With techno locked in grinding hairshirt minimalism and drum'n'bass becoming ever more oriented around distorted bass-riffs (to the point of sounding like headbanging heavy metal or old Killing Joke records), house's sensuousness beckoned hipsters like a quenching oasis.

But the glitterball dazzle of filter disco, the warm, organic musicality of Body 'N Soul and Nuphonic, these represent only one side of house music. In truth, house can be as mechanistic, punishing, and dehumanized as the hardest-core techno, the darkest drum 'n'bass. Right from the start, there's been a schism, or more accurately, a vital tension, within house culture: "songs" versus "tracks"; diva passion and gospel-descended uplift versus treadmill beats, trippy FX, and slimy blurts of inorganic synthesiser.

Called "tracky" or "trackhead" by cognoscenti, this side of house began with the mid-Eighties jack tracks (palsied vamps, stutter-afflicted vocal-riffs, mind-evacuating "jack your body" chants), then mutated into acid house in 1987. Acid contained its own micro-genre of vocal-based tracks, a world away from the melisma-drenched fabulousness of Ultra Nate and Robert Owens. On the flipside of Phuture's "Acid Tracks," the very first house tune to deploy the fractal wibbles of the Roland 303 bass-synthesizer, the astonishing "Your Only Friend" personified cocaine as a robot-voiced tyrant: "I'll make you lie for me, I'll make you die for me/In the end, I'll be your only friend." Then there was Sleezy D's ""I've Lost Control," a Sabbath-inspired Marshall Jefferson track featuring an "Iron Man" vocal and padded-cell-as-dub-chamber screams. Other classics of this micro-genre include Adonis's "No Way Back", Bam Bam's "Where's Your Child?" and Pierre's Pfantasy Club's "Dream Girl", all themed around disorientation, mindwreck, abduction, and sexual paranoia.

Green Velvet's Curtis Jones singlehandedly brought the creepy monologue back to house in the mid-Nineties. This Berkeley drop-out founded two Chicago labels: Cajual, for effervescent disco cut-ups (including his own Cajmere releases), and Relief, for cranium-denting beats and drug-noise delirium. Jones first made an impact with 1995's "Flash". Over a battery of rivet-gun snares, Jones played a slurred-voiced guide escorting a tour group of worried parents armed with cameras through "Club Bad" and revealing all the decadent things their teenage kids get up to. Like sucking on balloons of nitrous oxide---"laughing gas, but this is no laughing matter". Slyly playing on the wired paranoia of ravers ("ohmigod, what if mom and dad really do arrive and see me all out of my head?!?!"), the chorus "cameras ready, prepare to flash" transforms the club's occult murk into a Panopticon space of exposed and documented delinquency.

"Flash" was apparently intended as an anti-drug song, Jones talking about some of the fucked-up freaky shit he saw going on in clubs where he was doing PAs. But the song is cunningly pitched so that it works just as well as an anthem for drug-fiends. (For a long while, until I listened to the lyrics closely, I thought the "prepare to flash" chorus was a drug exhortation, referencing the "flash" or total-body rush some amphetamine users experience, or "flash" as in an LSD flashback). "La La Land", a standout track on the new Green Velvet album Whatever, is similarly ambiguous. Reviving all those classic early rave metaphors that involve imagery of madness, brain damage, derangement, the pursuit of oblivion through concussive bliss, "La La Land" is sung by a hardcore hedonist who's always "looking for the after-party to begin." The chorus is brilliantly catchy--"something about those little pills/unreal/the thrills/they yield/until/they kill/a mill/ion brain cells" (the rhymes work better if you adopt a black American accent, with the 'd' in 'yield' left unpronounced). But if that chorus sounds like a "Just Say No" warning, the lines "la la land is the place I need to be/the place that sets me free" contradict them. Is this profoundly ambivalent, or just a cowardly refusal to adopt a consistent standpoint? Does Jones accept that drug-abusers are seeking things the real world can't offer, escaping an intolerable world into a chemical utopia? Or does he simply not want to alienate his primary market, drugged up ravers, by unreservedly condemning their self-destructive pleasures?

Up until now, Green Velvet's emphasis has been on black humour, like "Answering Machine" with its a litany of bad news deposited on some luckless fellow's incoming message cassette: a landlord's eviction notice, his fiancee announcing that the baby is not his, a "psychic" fortune teller advising him to "stay in your house today, tomorrrow, and FOREVER". Or "Abduction", a simultaneously hilarious and disturbing ditty about being molested by alien beings midway through washing the dishes: Jones delivers lines like "they touched a part of me that I didn't know existed" in the faded, faltering voice of a survivor's confessional, with a feel for conversational cadence that's method acting in excelsis. Then there's the tripped-out whimsy of songs like "Water Molecule" (off the 1999 debut album Constant Chaos), where a zonked-out Jones imagines being reincarnated as H2O. The appeal? Water's access-all-areas privileges: "I would be a part of all different types of people, 'cos I would travel around in my vapor state, and I would turn into my liquid state and enter their glass and they would swallow me and I'd be part of their bodies".

The new album, though, is surprisingly serious, even militant. "When?" is straightforward anti-racist protest, a "don't judge me" plea to purge from your mind the prejudices and ethnic stereotypes caused by media brainwashing. The only hint of comedy here is his anti-humanist quip "we're all inferior". Propelled by a harsh, scouring riff, "When?" is a bit like if Mad Mike let his anger come out through a vocal tirade rather than just song-titles and slogans etched into the vinyl. Elsewhere, the spirit is pure punk rock: the staccato, accusatory "Stop Lyin'", the "don't mess with my mind" aggression of "Dank", the searing instrumental "Minimum Rage" with its title punning on the bottom-level income earned by American 16 year olds at fast-food restaurants and similar dead end jobs. "GAT (The Great American Tragedy)" is an anthem for teenage freaks who start dressing weird and acting out, only to get the condescending "you're just going through a phase" treatment from parents and elders. Jones delivers the chorus-howl "THIS IS NOT A FUCKING PHASE!!" with the percussive phrasing of arly Eighties US hardcore punk bands like Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, and Negative Approach. This is slamdancing techno, moshpit rave.

None of this would work so well if the backing tracks weren't so compulsive, deranging, and, well, tracky. Green Velvet's sound reactivates a forgotten branch of house's family tree: not the symphonic sashay of Philly and Salsoul, but post-Moroder artpunk--the panting, guttural vocals and kinky pulsations of DAF and Liaisons Dangereuses (both huge on Chicago's early Eighties dancefloors), the soiled electronics of Throbbing Gristle, The Normal, and Suicide. Whatever's sound has a retro-Eighties feel, at times closer to industrial and EBM than even the most tracky of modern house. Songs like "Stop Lyin'" are clockwork mechanisms pulsating in strict time, all square-sounding, stiff beats and 16th note sequenced bassline patterns that chatter and pummel. "Gendefekt" is a rigid grid of quantized drums and eerily spiralling synth-noises that make you think of the DNA helix; Kraftwerk's Computer World lost in a ketamine void. Propelled by slinky bass-riffs that writhe and squirm through your ears like frantic mind-worms in a hurry to get to the chewy center of your brain, "Sleepwalking"--the new album's absolute killer tune--is like Cabaret Voltaire on amyl nitrate.

Jones has described what he does as "folk music for the rave scene". Like that other pioneer of story-telling techno The Horrorist a/k/a Oliver Chesler, he's adept at finding narratives that fit the abstract emotions and weird energies generated by electronic music but that don't detract from its posthuman intensity. Jones also stands out in a faceless scene as one of the few live performers in electronica whose physical presence really adds something to the records. His live show is not to be missed, involving costume changes, voice-warping FX, auto-destruction theatrics (he's wont to fake-smash an Eighties shoulder-strap synth as if it were an electric guitar), and loads of charisma. The guy's a star.

THE PRODIGY, The Fat of the Land
Village Voice, July 8th 1997

Some say the Prodigy have betrayed the bright promise of the "electronica revolution", resulting in a techno-rock hybrid that's not so much kick-ass as half-assed. But the Prodigy have always been a rave 'n' roll band rather than "proper" techno. The crucial distinction to grasp here is that techno and rave are not synonymous, and that in some respects rave has more in common with rock than with club culture.

In the USA, rave is regarded as the epitome of fashion-plate Europhile trendiness, but in Britain dance music is the mainstream of pop culture, and rave specifically has a decidedly lumpen, un-cool aura. "Raves were mass, teenage, one didn't go to them," is how a veteran of London's 1988 acid house club Shoom explained it to me recently. Purists, who believe the music is properly experienced in clubs, where DJs play long, varied, "educational" sets to an allegedly discriminating audience, see raves as alarming close to arena rock concerts. Ravers's rowdy rituals of abandon and joyous uniformity of attire suggest the very herd mentality that clubbers define themselves against.

By 1990, huge-scale one-off raves were transforming house and techno into bombastic spectacles full of lights and lasers, fun-fair attractions, and stellar DJ lineups. Where a club might have one or two DJs, raves featured ten DJs playing a bare hour each, sometimes less. To avoid being blown away by the other jocks, the DJs played crowd-pleasing anthems with their turntables cranked up to plus-8. Then DJ-producers started making music to fit this full-on tempest. Detroit techno was "debased", or so the official history goes, into the hyperkinetic drug-noise called 'ardkore (which was when my ears pricked up).

And by 1991, the UK had a massive circuit of commercial, fully licensed raves, with promoters booking rave bands as well as DJs. Alongside N-Joi, Bizarre Inc, and Shades of Rhythm, the Prodigy were the most popular hardcore rave act. Musically, the Prodigy fit techno's standard syndrome--the boffin (Liam Howlett) knob twiddling alone in his studio lab. But live and on video, the Prodigy were always a band, with three other members--MC Maxim Reality, and dancers Keith Flint and Leeroy--taking up the visual slack.

At the height of this golden age of rave, the Prodigy encapsulated the contradictions of 'ardkore: this music was simultaneously an underground phenomenon and solidly pop. Apart from their first, "Android", every Prodigy single released to date has made the top 15; their second, "Charley", got to Number Three in the summer of '91, while the follow-up, "Everybody in the Place", was kept off the Number One spot only by Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody". All the more remarkable since these brilliant early singles offer an only slightly more polished version of breakbeat hardcore, the music that evolved into jungle. Techno purists sniffed, but I always saw it as the new garage punk: riffs, noise, amphetamine-frenzy freakbeats, a sort of aggressive euphoria – the spirit of 1966 and 1977 channeled through the body of hip hop. When the Prodigy stepped onstage at Irving Plaza a month ago, they were introduced as something "for all you punk rockers, hip hoppers, and pill poppers." No mention of techno headz or house bods; indeed, Liam Howlett has been proclaiming in interviews that he never liked Kraftwerk, the sacred source for Detroit techno.

Starting with 1994's sophomore album Music for the Jilted Generation, the Prodigy repositioned themselves as rock, partly by using electric guitar on a couple of tracks, and partly by the vague conceptual/protest angle to the album. The jilted generation, explained Howlett, was kids who'd grown up under Thatcher, had little to live for but drugs and dance music, and now found even their weekend utopia threatened as authorities targeted raves. The UK equivalent, in other words, of the American grunge audience: Generation E.

All that remained was to bring the noise to America. Step One: turning dancer Keith Flint into the video-genic vocalist on "Firestarter". OK, the promo is corny: Flint's Mohican and psycho-youth grimaces. But sonically, "Firestarter" is sampler-wielding cyber-Stooges, a Dionysian hymn to destruction. Appearing at the MTV Europe Awards to pick up a trophy for Best Dance Video, the Prodigy greeted EC youth with "Hold it down!" a vintage '92 rave rallying cry--as if to confirm 'ardkore's historical victory and vindication. No matter that out of the early rave bands only the Prodigy had survived the collapse of the 1990-92 circuit; the music had become what it had always secretly been – the new rock.

"Firestarter" looked like a dead cert as electronica's ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, but inexplicably stumbled at the threshold of the Billboard top 30. Maybe "Breathe"--a jungle-punk duet between Flint and Maxim--will bust down the door, what with its abjection-chic video à la Tool and Marilyn Manson. Enjoyably reminiscent of Oi! bands like Angelic Upstarts, the song was a highlight of the Prodigy's otherwise patchy performance at Irving Plaza. There's rock, and then there's rawk; too often the Prodge crossed the line. When they dragged onstage a "real" guitarist, nor only did he look like a ye olde punke relic from the King's Road, but the overall effect was a tad Rage Against the Machine. Sans politics, of course: the Prodigy's brand of vacant menace and quasi-insurrectionary mayhem slots into the illustrious plastic punk lineage that runs Alice Cooper/Sweet/Billy Idol/Adam and the Ants. (The Prodge even feature an insect in their logo.)

Talking of insects, Keith Flint has described the Prodigy as "buzz music." The song titles are mostly self-reflexive, referring only to the music's own sensations: "Hyperspeed", "Pandemonium", "G-Force", "Full Throttle", "The Heat (The Energy)". 'Ardkore always did belong to a burgeoning "rush culture" that includes video games, roller-blading, extreme sports like snow-boarding (a hobby of the band's), and bungee jumping (a popular sideshow at raves), as well as the obvious illegal stimulants.

The Fat of the Land is no departure: it's all teenage rampage, cheap thrills, and adrenalin OD. Fat kicks off well with the boom-bastic ‘Smack My Bitch Up’. Shame about the obnoxious title/chorus--teenage boys hardly need any more excuses to strike pimp poses. In mitigation, it must be said that the Prodigy are not a group that repays close lyrical analysis; their forte isn't deep and meaningful, but the profoundly superficial (not a dis by any means). Howlett is a supreme organizer of dynamics, bridges, and breakdowns, tension and release. "Diesel Power", a pumping midtempo collaboration with rapper Kool Keith, nods to Howlett's pre-rave past as a British B-boy. "Funky Shit"--old-school 'ardkore, more or less--is one of the few non-vocal tracks.

Fat's use of "real" singers is an indication of the band's eagerness to meet post-grunge America halfway. But it means the Prodigy have to get around the fact that they have nothing much to say-– "this is dangerous/open up your head/feel the shellshock" is typical--which didn't matter when the music was just breakbeats, riffs, and samples.

Ironically, given their desire to be taken as a futuristic rock band, the Prodigy's taste in yer actual contemporary guitar bands is poor. "Serial Thrilla" samples Skunk Anansie; "Narayan", a nine-minute collaboration with Crispian Mills of the god-awful Kula Shaker, is a poor man's "Setting Sun" (the Chemical Brothers' Britpop/breakbeat merger). The L7 cover "Fuel My Fire" would normally count as more bad taste by my lights, but I must admit it's an exciting finale, with a heavily distorted Flint tirade and Republica's Saffron providing baleful backing sneers. The song fits perfectly into the Prodigy's shtick: depoliticized punk offering youth a sort of aerobic workout for their frustration and aggression.

Fat packs enough big beats, bass-quake, and flechette-insidious hooks to do the required job (conquering America), but as an album-length experience it sags somewhat in the middle. In true punk tradition, the Prodigy are really a singles band, which is why the 1992 debut Experience (in effect a collection of greatest hits up to that point) remains their most consistently exciting album. But as opposed to "proper" techno, where there's no brand loyalty and artists are only as good as their latest 12-inch, I'll keep faith with the Prodigy. They're a rave 'n' roll band, and I'm a fan.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

VARIOUS ARTISTS, Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968
Spin, 1998

Whatever way you define the essence of rock'n'roll--sex or dance or drugs, rage to live or rage against the machine--the common denominator shared by all these body/mind states is intensity. Rock'n'roll doesn't have to be fast or loud, but it's gotta have that feeling of incandescent immersion in the here-and-now.

Perhaps there's never been rock music so consumed by a tense present as mid-Sixties garage punk--that shambolic movement of white American teen bands who bastardised the already crude caricature of black rhythm-and-blues perpetrated by Brit Invaders such as The Kinks and The Yardbirds. The result was a comically exaggerated hypermachismo whose barely concealed subtext was virginity blues. Hence the volcano-of-pent-up-sperm that is "Action Woman" by The Litter, whose singer threatens to trade in his current girl for a more compliant model who'll provide "satisfaction" (that highly-charged buzzword of the mid-Sixties). But although its motor is usually sex and/or sexism, the greatest music of the "punkadelic" era achieves a kind of abstract urgency; "content" spontaneously combusts in an energy-flash of lust without object or objective.

Rhino's four-CD Nuggets dramatically expands on the original 1972 anthology. Lenny Kaye's feat of creative archivalism simultaneously altered the contours of the rock canon (deposing the Beatles/Cream aristocracy in favor of the disregarded one-hit wonders of the pre-Sgt Pepper's era: Count Five, The Seeds, Thirteenth Floor Elevators, The Standells, Shadows of Knight) and shaped rock's no-future (Nuggets was a primary resource for proto-punkers such as Pere Ubu and Television). Kaye's original double elpee takes up the first
silver disc; the other three scoop up a legion of regional smashes and one-miss blunders.

Although there's a well-produced surfeit of bubblegum-psych and frat-party bop, and not nearly enough of the inspired lo-fi ineptitude you'll find on obscurantist garage comps like Pebbles and Mindrockers, this new Nuggets contains way too many gems to list here: the ear-dazzling flare of Nazz's "Open My Eyes", the lysergic oneupmanship of The Third Bardo's "I'm Five Years Ahead of My Time," the paranoid delirium tremens of The Music Machine's "Talk Talk," the louche swagger of Chocolate Watchband's saliva-drooling Stones pastiche "Sweet Young Thing." My absolute all-time fave spurt of G-punk , though, is We The People's "You Burn Me Up And Down", which you can also find on Sundazed's superb anthology of the band's output, Mirror Of Our Minds. A sensual inferno of turbid fuzztone and jagged riffs, "Burn Me Up" is a hormonally-crazed paean that shifts from the
eros-tormented gasp "baby, you're learnin'" to the era's ultimate
compliment: "you satisfier!"

But this is history, right? Well, no, actually. In "Burn Me Up," I
hear not just the ancestry for My Bloody Valentine's kissed-out "Slow" but the secret spiritual source for The Prodigy's "Firestarter", Big Beat monstertunes such as Fatboy's "Everybody Loves A Filter", and a thousand hardcore rave anthems . Punk to funk, garage bands to computer-in-the-bedroom junglists , you can trace a continuum of teenagers hopped up on stimulants (or fervently pretending to be)
and literally electrified by the latest noise-toys (wah-wah pedals
in '66, samplers in '92). If Nuggets is "educational", it's 'cos it's
an endlessly renewable refresher course in how to live like you're on fire. The guys responsible may now all be bank managers or professors of astronomy (like the singer in Chocolate Watchband!) but right here, right now, they're aliver than you or I will ever be.


VARIOUS ARTISTS, Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts From the British Empire & Beyond
Uncut, 2001

Lenny Kaye's 1972 anthology Nuggets was a rock archivist's masterstroke, a feat of canon rewriting that deposed the post-Sgt Pepper's aristocracy and elevated the forgotten garage punks of the mid-Sixties, from The Seeds to Chocolate Watchband. Rhino's 1998 four-CD update of Nuggets dramatically expanded the original double LP. Now this latest instalment extends the Nuggets premise beyond the USA to encompass the one-hit-wonders and never-wozzers of mid-Sixties Britain: that all-too-brief golden age of amphetamine-cranked R&B and mod-on-LSD that's roughly bookended by "My Generation" and Cream's Disraeli Gears. Just the names of these long-lost groups--Dantalion's Chariot, Wimple Winch, Rupert's People, The Idle Race--induces a contact high, before you even play the discs.

Back then, singles made their point and left. This short'n'sweet succinctness allows the compilers to cram 109--that's one hundred and nine--tracks into four discs. Here's just a handful of gems. Tintern Abbey's "Vacuum Cleaner", with the saintly-sounding David MacTavish singing a proto-Spacemen 3 love-as-drug/drug-as-God lyric ("fix me up with your sweet dose/now I'm feeling like a ghost"), splashy cymbals, and a billowing solo of controlled feedback. Them's "I Can Only Give You Everything": Van in I'm-A-Man mode, awesomely surly and swaggering. The Sorrows's "Take A Heart": a Brit-Diddley locked groove of tumbling tribal toms and spaced-out-for-intensified-effect guitar-riffs. The Eyes's "When The Night Falls" takes that drastic use of silence and suspense even further: powerchords like Damocles Swords, caveman tub-thumping, tongues-of-flame harmonica, and an insolent you-done-me-wrong/go-my-own-way vocal. Fire's "Father's Name Was Dad," a classic misunderstood teen anthem: society gets the blame and the kid surveys Squaresville from a lofty vantage, cries "I laugh at it all!"

One group stands out as a "why?-why?!?-were-they-never-MASSIVE?" mystery. Not The Creation, and not The Action--both had terrific songs but were a little characterless. No, I'm talking about John's Children's. Their two offerings here are astoundingly deranged, the monstrously engorged fuzzbass like staring into a furnace, the drums flailing and scything like Keith Moon at his most smashed-blocked. "Desdemona" features the then shocking chorus "lift up your skirt and fly", daft lines about Toulouse-Lautrec painting "some chick in the rude" plus the stutter-bleat of a young Bolan on backing vox. "A Midnight Summer's Scene" captures mod sulphate-mania on the cusp of mutating into flower power acid-bliss: it's a febrile fantasy of Dionysian mayhem in an after-dark park, maenad hippy-chicks with faces "disfigured by love", strewing "petals and flowers," prancing the rites of Pan.

John's Children's merger of cissy and psychotic highlights the major difference between American garage punk and British "freakbeat" (as reissue label Bam Caruso dubbed it for their illustrious Rubble compilation series). The Limey stuff is way fey compared with the Yanks. You can hear a proto-glam androgyny, a "soft boy" continuum that takes in Barrett and Bolan, obviously, but also the queeny-dandy aristocrat persona of Robert Plant. At the same time, because these bands were schooled in R&B and played live constantly, the music has a rhythmic urgency and aggressive thrust that gradually faded over subsequent decades from the psychedelic tradition (think of Spiritualized's drum-phobic ethereality). This, though, was music for dancing as much as wigging out.

Nuggets II isn't solid gold. There's a slight surfeit of boppy shindig-type rave-ups and sub-Yardbirds blues that just ain't bastardized enough. Personally I crave more tunes with truly over-the-top guitar effects, aberrant bass-heavy mixes, phased cymbals, drastic stereo separation, and other psych-era cliches. The "British Empire" part of the subtitle allows in Australia's The Easybeats (godstars for the duration of "Friday On My Mind") while the "Beyond" pulls in groovy Latin American acid-rockers Os Mutantes. But to be honest, a lot of the Commonwealth-and-beyond stuff just ain't that hot. And inevitably one could compile another 2-CDs out of heinous ommissions. Forget the quibbles, though, this box is a treasure chest of vintage dementia.

THE DARLING BUDS, Fulham Greyhound, London
Melody Maker, 1988

Accusations of sexism* - from the people who tried to tell
us Patsy Kensit deserved more than a shudder and a soft, sad
shake of the head - are rich, but I'll rise to them, if only
to make a point or two. Women In Pop was never a carte
blanche to be asinine or uninteresting. There are women-in-
pop - Kristen Hersh, Mimi Goese, Sinead O'Connor, Jane
Siberry, Bjork - who are worked up, who have something to
work out of themselves. And there are those - the nouveau
power pop/xeroxide blonde axis - who faff around, hide behind
outmoded imagery drawn from obsolete pop models. If you want
a pat opposition, it's between dark depths and shiny surfaces
(although the surfaces of the new power pop really aren't
that lustrous, more like the dull gleam of some obsolescent
Sixties synthetic). Between a special kind of unease with
yourself and the world, and being easy-on-the-eye and eager-

When it comes to "identifying" it's never been a
question of gender, but of whether anything is going on in
there. Hersh et al, at their best, are so involving you're
laid low with a kind of traumatic empathy. But I could never
"identify" with an identity as small and sure as Andrea Bud's
(I'm talking about her stage persona - for all I know she may
be a kaleidoscope of contradictions. In which case I wish
she'd share them).

I mean, we're hardly talking glamour, are we? I'm all
for glamour as reinvention of the self (although eclipse of
the self is better), but it's got to be done with a sight
more verve and contrariness. The horror of The Darling Buds
is not that the "sweetness" is constructed, but that the
fabrication is of such a paltry and precedented nature. Some
come-ons are so obvious, they make you cringe. That a few
people find this simpering spectacle 'erotic' I can only
attribute to retarded libido.

Support group Avo 8 work up a nice head of bile in your
reporter, with their seventh hand reductionism, their ghastly
echo of The Tourists, their rewrite of "Crash" ("He'll Slip
Up One Day"), their punk riffola of the same wattage as the
second Pistols album. The hellish spawn of The Prims would
appear to be legion. Then everything is confetti and balloons
as The Darling Buds hit the stage. The band are artisans,
tight, even fierce, within their self-imposed limits, but
everything's over as soon as the girl opens her mouth.

Andrea's cooing, dulcet tones condemn her to trace the
tritest of melodic paths, which in turn demand the worn doggerel
of the lyrics, their lazy reshuffling of the lexicon of luv.
Unlike Kylie Minogue, however, this is a reduction the Buds
have inflicted upon themselves. Vanilla was never my
favourite flavour.

In truth, this was "unpretentious fun". Yeah, that
minisucle. It was un-sultry, and very provincial - which is
to say, neither urban nor pastoral (the two poles in rock
fantasy) but based in that dreary stetch of reality in
between that most of us have to inhabit but few actually want
to see celebrated in rock. My interest is divided equally
between the special agonies of those who have never lived,
and those who have lived to the limits of life. I have no
time for those who have lived a little.

Nonetheless, there are those who argue that we writers
should try to get inside the provincial mindset, rather than
lead it forward. Last week, we were grateful for the
revelation that the Fields Of The Nephilim are wonderful
because of "their paucity of imagination". That may be, but
what's un-wondrous about The Darling Buds is their paucity
full stop, their meagreness in every degree. To hallucinate
"transcendence" in something this stinting and stunted,
involves going through so many intellectual hoops, that
really, boys, you shame us theorists. But in truth, this
doublethink - "they're meant to be crap", "every platitude
contains a truth" etc - seems a rather convoluted route to

But oh, they love to imagine it's the grim grid of
theory that stands between me and the "simple pop thrill",
the "immediacy" of Darling Buds, Transvision Vamp, etc. Arse
about tit, again, chaps. First, comes the gut-level reaction:
a wave of nauseous indifference. Then comes speculation: what
is this deja vu weakness, this aural shandy, and why does it
recur? Then comes theory, and resolve. If the Arsequake
League were the Politburo of Pop, we'd treat The Darling
Buds, and their male equivalents like The Wonderstuff, like
Stalin dealt with the kulaks: uproot them from their dismal
allotments of jangle, and force them at bayonet point into
sampling factories, to forge futurist rock a la Front 242 and
Young Gods, as part of a Five Year Plan for the regeneration
of Britpop. But we're not, so we'll heckle on, and sometimes
stoop to state the bleedin' obvious, steamroller over grapes**.

The gig? Oh, it was crap.


* Champions of "Blonde" (copyright: Chris Roberts) had implied that the Arsequake League's opposition to The Primitives/Transvision Vamp/etc was rooted in masculinist chauvinism

** this reissue dedicated to the great Neil Kulkarni

Friday, September 21, 2007

Melody Maker, March 1994


Cheap Thrills (Gee St)

With their bonged-up, monged-out, slack mofo vibe, their
love of sphincter-palpitating low-end bass, and their
fondness for timewarping vocals a la Hendrix' "Third Stone
From the Sun", New Kingdom are something like hip hop's
Butthole Surfers. Bleary, bullfrog-deep and blunted to the
bone, "Cheap Thrills" has basso so profundo, so thick, it's
ambient, environmental, swimmable. The "100 % Mix" is
woozier by far than the crisp'n'spry version from the LP
Heavy Load (whic is also included on this EP), but the
"Over Proof Mix" is something else. Remixer The Underdog
expands the bass frequencies into an abyssal undertow over
which floats a thin film of treble; the song damn near
coagulates and comes to a halt.


Do You Remember the First Time (Island)

The kitschadelic, '70s aspects are all there, of course,
but in other ways Pulp are a throwback to the early '80s,
when Pop still allowed for flawed, shaky vocalists that
pushed past their limits to attain a gawky grandeur (think
Kevin Rowland, Marc Almond...). "Do You Remember The First
Time" is just great, with its Sparksy histrionic urgency,
frilly guitars and amusing virginity theme ("do you remember
the first time?...I can't remember the last time... I can
remember the worst time..." etc). But "Streetlights" is the
real enchantress. Jarvis Cocker flits between heavy breathing
spoken word passages, lovelorn/lust-stricken gasps, and a
giddy chorus, amidst a chintzy, ritzy, roxy swirl of el
Cheapo synths as scintillating as a disco glitterball, while
violins vie for elbow room. Texturally I'm reminded of the
very early, electro-tinged Band of Holy Joy, and of The
Specials' muzak-influenced second album; textually, Cocker
has invented his own distintive magic realism, unlocking
provincial England's humdrum epiphanies (neon lights
reflecting in lover's eyes etc) and seedy romanticism.
Marvellous stuff.


Thru the Vibe (94) (from 'Two On One, Issue Two', Moving

Through their enduring classics of last year, "Mystic
Stepper (Feel Better)" and "Renegade Snares", Omni Trio have
exerted a huge influence on the hardcore scene; they're one
of the key units who trailblazed jungle's current absorption
of all manner of soul, ambient, quiet storm and garage
influences. Now, with their track on the second in Moving
Shadow's series of experimental EP's, Omni Trio unleash
another tour de force of symphonic hardcore. With its
crystalline harp-ripples, tingly piano motif, orchestral
synths, exploding-soul gasps and Uzi-rattling breakbeats,
"Thru the Vibe" is a rush and a gush of euphoria. On the
flip, DJ Crystl's "King of The Beats" explores the spookier
side of ambient 'ardkore, with eerily modulated sample-tones
flickering and folding in on themselves as if in
a sonic hall-of-mirrors.


The Rumble (Production House)
Deep Inside of Me (Darklands)
Your Destiny (Dee Jay Recordings)

Critic and ambient musician David Toop noted recently
how so much of modern music evokes "the sensation of non-
specific dread that many people feel now when they think
about life, the world, the future", and how that dread is
related to, or even the same as, a sensation of non-specific
bliss. This uncanny bliss/dread is audible in the darker
kinds of ambient techno, and in ambient's close relative, the
isolationist/uneasy listening of Main & Co. But it's also
there in jungle, which is taking on ambient textures even as
its 150 b.p.m. breakbeats get ever more jaggedly jarring. The
resultant oxymoronic blend of mellow langour and febrile
tension has everything to do with long-term drug excess,
which loosens the tyrannical grip of the ego, but also opens
up the DARK SIDE, lets loose all the predatorial phantoms and
noxious paranoia of the id.

DJ Nut Nut & Pure Science's "The Rumble" actually starts
with the words "oh, dread"--a snatch of reggae DJ 'talkover'-
-and its bassline is as baleful as PiL circa Metal Box. But
there's bliss by the gallon here too, in the melting
female whimpers of "oh... oh, oh", in the sagging, sighing
ambient drones: a dangerous bliss, for the nameless soul-diva
sounds overwhelmed, like she's "drowning in love" (the chorus
of another jungle track). The B-side "Virtual Reality" is a
treacherous swamp of sub-bass ooze, like dancing over a pit
of writhing snakes.

Grooverider's "Deep Inside Of Me" has a harrowed,
heartbroken quality. The male soul-singer chorus, "I've got
so much love/deep inside of me", is a lamentation that
perfectly represents rave culture in '94: all luv'd up and
nowhere to go. The vocal sample languishes inside a desolate
dub-cavern of rippling and receding percussion, slow-and-low
bass and squelchamatic synth-blips.

DJ Crystl's "Your Destiny" is ambient hardcore at its most morbid, ghost-cries
veering up out of a pall of dank sound-vapour, and even a
cold fever of breakbeats can't shake the track out of its
gloom. Imagine the vibe in the Jurassic jungle when the Ice
Age was coming... On the flip, "Sweet Dreamz" is a sinister
lullaby: a female voice intones the chorus, while ambience
creeps up on you like a shroud of anaesthesing gas.
(Jungle tracks supplied by Remix Records, 247 Eversholt
Street, Camden NW1).

Threshold (Placebo)
Prison Sex (Zoo/BMG)

In these, perhaps the last days of guitar-rock, bands
have to pull some pretty bizarre shapes in order to do
anything even remotely new within an oversubscribed, long-in-
the-tooth medium. Hence the baroque'n'roll contortions of
Rollerskate Skinny and Tool, who have nothing in common
except the predicament above, and the lengths they go to
sidestep it. Rollerskate Skinny ply a wilfully oblique and
overloaded path somewhere between Mercury Rev and Papa
Sprain. On "Miss Leader", reedy guitar-trails meander across
the stereo-field, while the vocals are multi-tracked to cram
every cranny of the songscape with hysteria. With its
scrofulous, grotesque detail and spurts of Dadaist nonsense,
"Entropy" is positively Faust-like, while "Goodbye Balloon"
combines Mark E. Smith loudhailer vox with Kraut-rocky
guitar-shimmer. Never less than intriguing, Rollerskate
Skinny hit moments of real intensity amidst all the excess
and over-reach.

Tool, too, are pretentious as fuck, but their chosen
medium is metal. Imagine a lither, fey Soundgarden, with
fluttery androgynous vocals instead of the hi-testosterone
bombast. The singer performs torturous pirouettes while the
band twist'n'fold riffs like origami over supple, spasming
time signatures. Overwraught, distraught--let's call it
precious metal, but concede that it's intriguing if not
exactly satisfying.

Conquering Lion (X Project)

Makers of a wonderfully daft ragga-techno track that
sampled Aled Jones' "Walking In The Air" and turned that into drug
imagery, X Project return with another splendid example of
jungle's jollier side. As palsied as ska and as compulsive
as crack, "Conquering Lion" is all richotetting snares and
rimshots, spring-heeled bass, uproarious "jump up bwoy"
chants and dub-reggae sirens. At the heart of the track,
though, is this dislocated shard of female vocal, a little
"oh, oh" that introduces a bittersweet note of pathos and
fragility into an otherwise upful song. It's like a pang-in-
advance, anticipating the comedown after the manic high.

Switch (Ultimate)

All the congenital weaknesses of Brit-rap are present,
unfortunately: the soundscape is poor man's Bomb Squad,
looped squalls of dissonance a la "Bring The Noise", while
the rapping is blighted, or Blighty-d, with unfunky Angloid
emphases. On the "First Venom Remix", though, J. Saul Kane
from Depthcharge does dub-detonate some pretty interesting
craters in the soundscape. Lyrically, "Switch" is pretty par-
for-the-course millenarian paranoia: it's Grandmaster Flash's
"The Message" updated for UK '94, with "don't push me I'm
close to the edge" converted into the chorus "don't fall too
deep down". Which brings us back to that sense of non-
specific dread that's all-pervasive right now and how there
can be a perverse thrill in contemplating that abyss of
chaos, a sort of negative bliss in imagining your descent
into the maelstrom. This comes through in the B-side "Age of
Panic" (whose "Eat Static Saturated Slug Mix" sounds just
like its title--positively slimey with clammy apprehension).
For the original Greek meaning of 'panic' is a transport of
ecstasy-through-terror. Eve-of-apocalypse scenarios have
often made for great pop--"London Calling", "Welcome To The
Terrordome"--but not infallibly, as 'Switch' proves.

Hold On(Fire)

The A-side is the more winsome and negligible side of
the 'Blooms: post-MBV noise-pop with the emphasis overmuch on
syruppy choonfulness. One for the Boo Radley fans, then. But
the B-side has some of the perversity that flared up
previously in the wonderful ambient-idyll that was "Butterfly
Girl". Black Sabbath's heaviness has long been an acceptable
resource for rehabilitation, but it takes real courage, and
taste, to tackle a ballad like "Changes", and to do it
straight, with no figleaf of irony. Adding truly OTT blues
solos to the original's mellotron sweeps, and replacing
Ozzy's morose croon with Esther's dulcet vocals, The
Nightblooms salvage the song's poignancy for all those too
bigoted to take it from the Sabs themselves.

Peel Session (Internal)

This four-tracker offers yet another radically
different (per)version of "Lush", but it's real attraction is
"Semi detached". As usual, the Hartnoll Bros overlap and
interlock sequencer-strands and synth-spirals in the
en-trancing fashion of systems music composers like Glass,
Nyman, Reich and Riley, and construct a lattice of percussive
tics and clicks as intricate as a honeycomb. "Semi detached"
evolves, after eight minutes, into "Attached", brimming
brain-waves of electronic plasma, with a vague Neu!/Cluster
aura reminiscent of Spiritualized's gloriously Kraftwerkian
but cruelly ignored "Electric Mainline".

4 Ambient Tales (Apollo)

Ambient torch songs' sounds like a great idea, but this
is actually a bit of a mismatch, as Billy Ray's breathy,
over-demonstrative vocal jars rather with The Grid's softly-
glowing ambient decor and B.J. Cole's pearl-necklaces of
slide guitar. "Planet Of The Blue" chimes in with the non-
specific dread thesis, but the blues in
ambient/isolationist/jungle/Disco Inferno et al is present in
an implicit, non-literal, musicologically remote sort of way.
Similarly, ambient techno doesn't need a brightly burning
SOUL like Billy Ray Martin's; 'soul'--and this applies to all
forms of MODERN music, not just techno--is dispersed
polymorphously throughout the soundscape, taking up residence
in the bassline, the panoply of textures, even the drum
track. Instead of 'soul'--that one bombastic figure pouring
out a heartful of passion--there's a diffuse
spirituality/sensuality that spreads across the entire
surface, or skin, of a piece of music. Time to talk of music
in terms of its erogenous, or eroto-mystical zones, rather
than its 'soul'.

Megawatt Messiah (Blunted Vinyl)

Doyens of "intelligent hardcore", The Holy Ghost have
released some wonderfully daft and demented trax like
"Jihad", "Nice One Boy" and "Mad Monks On Zinc". But now
that they've signed to Island sub-label Blunted Vinyl, they've
dropped the "hardcore" and are just "intelligent", in a
yupwardly-mobile prog-house stylee. The titles--"Heavy
Water", "Ion Horse" and "Isotopia"--are still wacky, but the
music's cleanly produced, tasteful and smoothly grooving.
Squelchy bass, exotic samples (including ethno-techno pioneer
Jon Hassell if I'm not mistaken), trancey beats--but like
Fluke, it never quite amounts to the sum of its parts. Shame.

Merciless (Earache)

Cyber-thrash or digital metal seems to be a coming
thing, judging by the rise of sampler-wielding thrash units
like Old, and bands like Brutal Truth getting techno-remixes
by ardkores like Lunarci. Godflesh's new EP makes great play
of the fact that "all sounds are guitar samples, analogue to
digital", and that the songs are "biomechanical remixes". But
it's tricky, getting the balance between bio- and -mech right
when you're rewiring rock's nervous system into cyborg-rock.
Godflesh haven't quite got it yet. Removing the kinetic
energy that trad rock gets from the real-time interaction of
guitar/bass/drums is all very well so long as you use
sampling to create magickal, 5th dimensional effects. But
most of this EP sounds like Swans without the sense of
muscular, sinewy toil: slabs of grey noise over frigid dirge-
beats. Pretty fucking inclement stuff, although the near-
ambient "Flowers" (featuring Robert from Main) has a harsh
beauty. Godflesh might do well to remember that the first
sampler-delic rockers, Young Gods, deliberately kept a flesh-
and-blood drummer. Embrace the new tech too zealously,
extinguish the human element too rashly, and you just end up
with cold, dead sound.

Diggin' At the Dig In (Pop God)
Unsettled Life (Acid Jazz)

Praise Space Electric are rare groovey but with a 90's
non-retro sense of dub-space: jazzy nuances float mirage-like
down reverberant corridors between the beat, in a manner
redolent of Arthur Russell or Defunkt. Fusionoid in the best
"On The Corner"/Weather Report sense. Emperor's New Clothes
are on a similar tip, but with a bluesy, angsty aura
reminiscent of Yargo. Acid-jazz here signifies not
beret'n'goatee twats but the ailing, soul-stricken post-
'There's A Riot Going On' Miles Davis of "He Loved Him
Madly". Mixed by The Underdog (who worked on New Kingdom's
single), this is funk noir, but it sounded even more eerie
when I first played it, at an incorrect 33 r.p.m.
Melody Maker, February 1991

It's a strange trajectory that Sonic Youth have followed, from their early "Kill Yr Idols" iconoclasm to their present mode as rock mythomaniacs bringing up the rear for Neil Young (an idol of theirs). And as "Eric's Trip" blazes over the heads (in every sense) of the bovine arena hordes, one has to wonder whether your average cud-chewing US rocker can get his head around the rock-as-radiation/kaleid-ophrenic lyrics aesthetic. Like, where are the riffs, man?

Sonic Youth look awful small in this environment, but their music fares a lot better. The venue's scale and extra wattage bring a whole new volume (in the cubic, voluminous sense) to their sound. Even the songs from Goo, which seemed so trimmed and lame on vinyl, now rage in sparkling 5D, free of the album's dead-aired, dessicated production. I still marvel at how the people who wrote the lyrics for Daydream Nation (among the best rock poetry of the last decade) could also be responsible for twee conceits like "Tunic" or "Kool Thing". But live, the dumb words are swamped; "Kool Thing" is jagged and forbidding as a glacier, while "Tunic" gives way to a fissure of clustered harmonics hanging in the air like motes after a quarry explosion. For me, it's still Lee Ranaldo who's Sonic Youth's true textural/tectonic wizard, and Thurston & Gordon who are culpable for the Pop Art/postmodern fetish for 2D cartoon imagery of teen revolt and radical chic. But with the closing, awesome "Expressway To Yr Skull", such distinctions are obliterated. The sound is collective, amorphous, seemingly origin-less; at first a deadly mirage, then, in the Hendrixian feedback-sculpting coda, membrane after membrane of mummifying haze. Sonic Youth, as irritating individuals, disappear in their own wake.

Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner" trails the arrival of Crazy Horse, and prompts a ghastly misunderstanding; most of the audience are oblivious to the agonised irony of Jimi's version (the sonic equivalent of burning the flag as a torch for the young dead in 'Nam) and respond with unmistakeably jingoistic fervour. But the misunderstanding originates in a crucial ambivalence in Neil Young's own attitude, externalised in the disparity between the peace flag unveiled behind the stage and the yellow ribbon for the troops tied to the giant mike stand upfront. Young's audience comprises both burnt-out hippy pacifists and blue collar patriots because he himself has followed a trajectory from the counter culture to born-agin Reaganism. And these contradictions turn on the ambiguity of the word "freedom" - whether it simply means a free market society or some grander, vaguer existensial liberty; whether the first might in fact be the enemy of the latter.

Neil Young's work is located in the slipstream of the two great American traumatic disillusionments: the closing of the frontier at the end of the 19th Century, and the closing of the psychological/existensial frontier opened up in the late 1960's. "After the goldrush", there's just stranded lives, stagnant ideals, a utopia gone awry. Today, in the midst of US industrialised rock, Neil Young and Crazy Horse have a mythical resonance similar to that vested by Sam Peckinpah in the aged outlaw gang of The Wild Bunch: they're incorrigible, cantakerous, battered yet heroic survivals of a grander age. But instead of the railroad companies, it's MTV and a rock biz integrated with Hollywood, advertising and merchandising, that's ushering in a lowlier future.

With his grizzled locks (clearly a stranger to conditioner), weatherbeaten countenance and stooped gait, Neil Young seems to contradict his own adage that "it's better to burn out than to fade away". Except that his music uniquely combines ragged stamina and tempestuous incandescence; at its peak it's like a decrepit inferno. What shocked me was the sheer NOISE of his playing. Young brings new meaning to worn-out terms like "powerchord" (even on sweet songs like "Cinnamon Girl", they're like breakers crashing over your head) and "catharsis". His solos aren't decorative, but volcanic, driven, purgative, like he's trying to untie an unyielding knot of anguish inside himself. Stomping grimly around the lip of the stage, lashing and gouging his instrument, Young churns up a sensurround maelstrom that's like the missing link between Jimi and Albini. "Break It Down" and "Fuckin Up" are sundered by a freefall of mangled wreckage and flaming debris.

Where Sonic Youth are avant-gardists dipping a toe in the populist mainstream, Neil Young's populist rock'n'roll breaks its own hokey bounds continually, spills into free noise. Like his politics, Young's music blurs the border between reactionary and revolutionary. If there's nostalgia here, it's not a wistful longing for home but for homelessness; an untamed wilderness unspoilt by settlements and sell-outs, a place "where I can leave myself behind". That foreclosed frontier of freedom rages still in the razing glory of Young's guitar.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

THE STRANGLERS, The Old Testament: The UA Studio Recordings(1977-1982)
Melody Maker, 1993 (?)

It's easy to why The Stranglers were the most critically
reviled and terminally unhip band to emerge in the punk era:
their extreme misogyny, Jean-Jacques Burnel's pathetic neo-
fascist ideas about "warrior masculinity", Hugh Cornwell's
arty pretentions, arch-muso Dave Greenfield's baroque'n'roll
organ, the fact that portly drummer Jet Black used to drive
an ice-cream van. And yet, and yet, The Stranglers had
something. They didn't sell a quarter million copies of each
of the first three albums for nothing.

What they had, and what I'm still a sucker for, is a
sort of bruised and brooding machismo, a sour and splenetic
misanthropy. A voluptuous, glowering melancholy pervades
songs like "Goodbye Toulouse", "La Folie", the anti-heroin
"Don't Bring Harry" (whose moroseness upset Dave Lee Travis
when The Stranglers released it as an Xmas single). These
warrior wannabes' grievance was that the modern world offered
scant scope for traditional heroic virtues. Hence the
insuperable weariness of "Who Wants The World", the scowling
rancour of "Dead Ringer" and "Bitchin'".

Along with their famous songs (sexist anthems like
"London Lady" still have an irrestible zip, I'm afraid, while
"Golden Brown" is as pretty a smack-hymn as you could wish
for), all manner of engaging oddities are tucked away in the
albums' cranniess. Like "Outside Tokyo" (off the third LP,
Black and White, when the Stranglers' dark vision turned
really morbid), an eerie waltz-time lament that regrets
the invention of Time. The whole of Black and White is a
remarkable feat of failed pretentiousness and pseudo-sinister
weirdness, ranging from the sub-Beefheart shlock of "Do You
Wanna?" to "Death and Night and Blood", Burnel's tribute to
dodgy Japanese proto-fascist writer Yukio Mishima. But when
it comes to art-rock farragos, their UFOs-are-coming concept
album The Meninblack is unbeatable. Like, atrocious, man!

With 83 tracks gathering up every last album track and
B-side they recorded for United Artists (even "Old Codger",
their George Melly collaboration!), this four CD package is
for die-hards only. But their first four albums can be found
dirt-cheap in your local Record and Tape Exchange. An
anomaly in the annals of Brit-rock (I defy you to name a
single group they influenced), The Stranglers had something,
I tell you.

WIRE, The Ideal Copy
Melody Maker, May 2nd 1987

Wire are pure luxury. Here are a bunch of superior sound technicians with an immaculate grasp of the sculptural and architectural possibilities of rock, who nonetheless refuse to deploy these gifts to any particular end.
Wire despise the uses people subject music to, detest the currency of rock discourse; driven by the desire to avoid being reduced to a synopsis, they create a vivid, blank and quite inconsequential beauty. The aim: to dazzle, rather than enlighten; build edifices, rather than edify.

Along with Verlaine's Television, Wire were one of the first instances of rock as abstract art, as an energy dislocated from any precise function or venue. Don't approach Wire looking to come away with something beyond a faint afterglow of bliss. Don't even expect to be involved; Wire music is like something that aches in the distance, something to gawp at; crenellations, cataracts, constellations, cumulus... remote splendour.

Unlike kindred spirits New Order and Saqqara Dogs, however, Wire are seldom grave enough to be a mystical experience. There is something about Colin Newman's voice, his weak Rs, that suggests facetiousness, a whimsical tongue in cheek; something compounded by the densely punning weave of the lyrics.

The Ideal Copy is not quite the resounding return we might have hoped for: it's a muted, inconclusive affair, a tentative dipping of the toe, rather than the full swim. The single, ‘Ahead’, is a blatant rip off of New Order's ‘Temptation’, blood-let and muffled and a waste of time. The title track is almost New Wave (UGH!). But, in among a preponderance of clever, clogged music, are some moments of ecstasy. ‘Feed Me’ looms like the predatory tread of a giant, echoing through some vast cavern. And ‘Madman's Honey’ pours over the ear like a cascade of nectar, shimmers like a squadron of dragonflies, is spun from the most nightingale luscious harmonies since ‘Outdoor Miner’.

On the whole, though, The Ideal Copy is a slight disappointment: Graham Lewis' recent solo LP, under the moniker He Said, was a much LOUDER and more gripping record, and it's a shame it has remained so hideously under-celebrated. ‘Mad Man's Honey’ shows that Wire are still worth having high expectations of. Buy The Ideal Copy, for this song alone.


WIRE, Pink Flag / Chairs Missing /154
Melody Maker, 1994

It's the label, Harvest, that's the giveaway; art-school punks Wire were really a psychedelic band, firmly in the lineage of twisted whimsy and nonsense noir that runs from Syd Barrett through Brian Eno's pre-ambient LPs to early Bunnymen. It just took them a little while to become what they were.

For the debut Pink Flag is very of its time, with its 1977 mock-Cockney vox and stop-start riffs. The original Flag crams 21 brief bursts of abstract fury into a mere 35 minutes (this re-ish adds a few rarities); only the deadpan absurdism of the titles – 'Ex-Lion Tamer', 'Three Girl Rhumba' – hints that these aren't rabblerousing rants but Dadaist ditties. There's a school of thought that Flag is Wire's finest moment (a few years back an American band formed just to play note-perfect versions of its songs). And certainly, at their best – '12 X U', 'Dot Dash' – Wire were playing some of the most haiku-elegant, thrillingly minimal punk this side of Buzzcocks' 'Boredom'. Elsewhere, the anorectic arrangements and stilted unsyncopated beats – which, in 1977's original context, must have seemed a refreshing renunciation of prog-rock flab and soft-rock fluency – now just make you long for some juice and raunch. Generally, the stuff that sounds best is slow rather than speedy, like the bludgeoning proto-grunge of the title track and 'Strange'.

Chairs Missing (1978) is where Wire start getting luscious, multi-textured and spacious. This is classic neo- psychedelia, its glassy textures paving the way for the likes of Joy Division, but its deadpan wit forestalling Gothic gloom. Colin Newman's feyly sung lyrics range from scenarios as vivid-yet-unintelligible as dreams, to nursery rhyme nonsense where the melt-in-your-mouth sensousness of the sound of the words is all that counts. In the first category, 'Maroooned' is like one of Eno's songs about castaways and treading-water idlers circa Before and After Science: "As the water gets warmer my iceberg gets smaller". In the voluptuous gibberish category, there's the gorgeous near-hit 'Outdoor Miner', with its honeyed harmonies and chiming Byrdsian chords skewered by lyrics like "face worker, a serpentine miner, a roof falls, an underliner, of leaf structure, the eggtimer". 'I Am The Fly' ("in the ointment") is virtually a Wire manifesto, while tracks like the Electric Prunesy 'French Film (Blurred)' and 'Being Sucked In Again' forge a whole new geometry for rock, all harsh angles and marble surfaces.

154 (1979) still has elegaic neo-psych beauties like 'The 15th' and 'Map Ref. 41'N 93'W' but is generally more bombastic and sombre, its concussive riffs and corrosively miasmic textures looking ahead to Bailter Space or even Big Black. As with other bands who came out of '77 looking to progress yet were still hidebound by punk's taboo on over-expressive virtuosity (c.f. The Cure circa Pornography), the result was a glum stodge. Perhaps the best of the bunch is 'A Touching Display', as heavy as the missing link between Joy Div and Sabbath, with a Damocles Sword of a solo. On this reissue, there's also five extra tracks of semi-ambient weird murk that looks ahead to Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis' post-Wire project Dome.

After two and a half hours of Wire, I felt a strong thirst for a dose of orgiastic self-indulgence, a 'Freebird' or 'Voodoo Chile', i.e. everything that post-punk austerity intended to banish. Still, at their best Wire created a citrus-fresh strain of streamlined, strangely arbitrary beauty that warrants the term "perfect pop". Like all "perfect pop", it seemed to hark back to an age that never existed, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the stuff that was actually selling in the charts.

Melody Maker, 1995

Some things you should know about Flying Saucer Attack. They're the Bristol
based duo of David Pearce and Rachel Brook, and their records are released in the
USA by Drag City and over here by the latter's English affiliate Domino.
Stereolab cite FSA as a current fave alongside LaBradford, US visionaries
operating in a similar lo-fi-meets-ambient zone. FSA always feature lovely
photographs of pastoral idylls on their sleeves. Their last CD, the singles
compilation Distance, bore the legend "CDs destroy music". FSA are the only band I've ever heard of who claim to be influenced by Popol Vuh, obscure
Krautrock band. And on their self-titled debut, FSA built a wall-of-noise around
Suede's "The Drowners".

All this makes Flying Saucer Attack very 'cool' indeed. But we're not
interested in 'cool', folks, are we? Our sole criterion for a guitar-brandishing
combo in 1995 is that they unloose enough memory-dissolving beauty to flood all
of Rock History's multiple precedents out of our overstuffed heads, right? So
that we're drenched, drowned, in the Here-and-Now. It's no piece of cake, given
the sheer amount of guitar-malarkey extant in the world. But FSA do it, in

That said, there is one reference point I shall dredge up, if only because
FSA have themselves cited it. Pearce & Brooks are possibly the best
effects-pedallers since prime A.R. Kane. At times, their music's drifting
tendrils of halycon haze are uncannily redolent of early A.R. Kane bliss-bowers
like "Haunted". Even though they use a 6 track studio, shun hi-tech such as
samplers, and detest digital sound, FSA belong with the post-rock posse, because
(like Alex & Rudi) they avoid riffs and powerchords and instead pulverise rock
into billowing parabolas of harmonic motes. On Further, their third
long-player but second Album, they've even lost the backbeat, thereby shedding
their last vestiges of r'n'r earthiness.

The result is a sort of kosmiche folk. FSA's formula is to situate voice &
acoustic guitar up close, against a bliss-scape of delayed, distorted,
open-tuned, fuzz-haemorrhaged guitarstuff. The effect, on songs like "In The
Light Of Time", is like sitting at the feet of a folk-minstrel (say, Nick Drake)
who's strumming and murmuring at the top of a hill, silhouetted against the
blazing glory of a West Country sunset. At times, the delicate songcraft is
utterly overwhelmed by the chromatic chaos. "For Silence" starts idyllic, a
forlorn melody swathed in guitar that trails a slipstream of reverbed
after-images, then the stream turns to weir-of-noise, a foaming torrent in which
you hallucinate a myriad fleeting melody-shapes. The white-noise slopes of "Here
Am I" induce snowblindness of the ear; if I have one criticism of FSA it's that
sometimes their sound is too overloaded, and that now and then they could afford
to make a little more room for emptiness.

A 12 minute instrumental, "To The Shore" is FSA's zenith to date--their "Bel
Air" or "Sun Falls Into The Sea". Imagine Krautrock-in-dub, or a less
inhospitable Main (isolationism, but you can bring a friend). It starts slow
and eerie with gong-like metallic percussion, breaks into a canter with
percussion so reverbed it seems to trip on its own tail and a vapour-trail of
cymbal spray, then escalates into an almighty on-rush and out-gush of timbral
mayhem, like a levee breaking inside your head and flooding the plain of
mundanity with wonder. Finally, the track subsides into a twinkling, dew-stippled
dawn-scape, like the world seen afresh through cleansed, newborn senses.

Further is the best pure-guitar LP since Royal Trux's Cats and Dogs.


Melody Maker, 1995
By Simon Reynolds

The setting is spot on-- a pretty Putney park near the Thames, on a gorgeously sunny day in almost-September. White clouds scud across oceans of azure, but there's a crisp chill in the air, a poignant premonition of autumn. Perfect Flying Saucer Attack weather, in fact, matching the way their music fuses the idyllic (wondergush guitar-chaos) and the melancholic (forlorn folkadelic melody).

We're sitting crosslegged, in a triangle, and Rachel Brook and David Pearce
are telling me how the early singles of A.R. Kane are a founding moment for the
Flying Saucer Attack aesthetic.

"When Up Home came out," says Dave, referring to the Kane boys' first Rough
Trade EP, arguably their finest fifteen minutes. "I thought, 'Yes, this signals
the start of something new'. It's the way that the guitars had these free, random
elements running against the structure. It was liberating to listen to, and yet
there was such beauty of sound. I felt, 'wow, there is still work to be done with
the electric guitar". A few years later, I felt the same about the first two
Main EP's--probably the best things Robert Hampson ever did, in Loop or later."

Bliss-rock revelations notwithstanding, Pearce's musical history starts
somewhat earlier. Now in his late twenties (Rachel's 22), he must be surely one
of the very last musicians coming through who were thunderstruck by the Sex
Pistols as they actually happened.

"In early 1977, it really seemed like society was going to fall to bits. I was
about 10 or 11. Then bands like Magazine and Wire came through..."

Which brings us neatly to FSA's new single, a cover of Wire's classic
"Outdoor Miner". Pearce was actually one of the select few who bought the single
at the time, propelling it to Number 52 in the charts. So is there an element
here of giving the finger to Menswear and Elastica, both being, shall we say,
re-interpreters of the Wire legacy?

"Oh yeah! What would have been nice, though, would have been if our version
had been any good."

Come now, it's pretty fine. The only real flaw is that the original's most
sublime moment is missing: the counterpoint melody-line that Graham Lewis
supplies towards the end, those Byrds-like backing harmonies that crush the
breath out of you.

"That's cos we only had a four-track to work on," confesses Rachel. "We just
didn't have enough tracks for double-tracking the voice."

It's nice the way you bury the solo in a fog of cotton-woolly guitarhaze,
though, so that the ear can barely pick it out.

"Yeah, it has that 'Interstellar Overdrive' quality," says Dave. "I remember
reading somewhere that 'Outdoor Miner' was Wire's Syd Barrett side coming

Elastica and Menswear and that lot have only picked up on Wire's New
Wavey-ness: the stop-start herky-jerky rhythms, Colin Newman's Mockney
pseudo-prole accent. Whereas you're working from Wire's under-acknowledged
psychedelic side.

"On the Chairs Missing LP they were using sounds that maybe you'd never
heard before, which is possibly the link with psychedelia."

Then there's "Outdoor Miner"'s aura of blessed serenity, and the lyric "in
fact it's the Earth/which he's known since birth"--which chimes in sweetly with
Flying Saucer's pastoral yearnings.

"The pastoralism comes down to the fact that as a child I used to live in the countryside, in the Cotswolds. And being a shy, quiet person, I prefer the country, 'cos you can wander off on your own. In the city you get aggro and hassle all the time."

On their three albums and innumberable 7 inch singles so far, FSA have
consistently, nay, obsessively, deployed cover images of idyllic Nature: cloud-
castles in the sky, scintillating seascapes at sunset, lakeshore trees reflected
in limpid water, ebbtide beaches at dusk. Then there's the song titles: "Land
Beyond The Sun", "In The Light Of Time", "To The Shore", "Standing Stone",
"November Mist", "Oceans"... Bit of a thematic thread, here: impressive
metereological phenomena, vast remoteness, solitude, the scent of Eternity...

"Anything that isn't to do with anybody else in the human race, basically!",
chuckles Dave. "I'm not deliberately antisocial but I do feel uncomfortable in
the company of people. I don't suffer from depression, but I get waves of feeling
utterly alone. I've had 'em since I was about four years old. When we were doing
Further, I gathered together the 50 percent of the tracks we'd recorded that were any good, put it on a cassette and then listened to it as an album. It was a bit of a shock! I thought: 'am I really that miserable?".

FSA's combination of neo-folk rusticism with misery-guts life-stance and
softly-softly singing echoes two of Dave's personal faves: Nick Drake and Roy
Harper circa Stormcock. Another huge and even more arcane influence is the
kosmiche folk of obscure Krautrock combo Popol Vuh.

"I don't class Popol as part of that Can/Faust/Neu axis, cos they weren't
so rhythmically based," says Dave, "Having finally managed to hear practically
everything they released, some 18 albums, I'm amazed at the sheer breadth of
Popol's music--massive percussion stuff, Moogy electronic proto-ambient, flowery
pastoralism.... In the late '70s they got really dark with lots of ritualistic
chants. Then they did all these records with cavernous-sounding, distorted
electric guitars. But the real key is the incredible 24 minute long track track
with the church organ on In Den Garten Pharaos: if you're a bad moood that
track sounds really evil, but if you're in a good mood it just sounds angelic."


Generalising wildly, you could says there's two camps in post-rock; those
whose orientation is overtly technological (Laika, Techno-Animal, Disco Inferno)
and those based around an overt avoidance of state-of-art hi-tech (Stereolab,
Labradford, the Dead C). It's in this latter zone, lo-fi-verging-on-ambient, that
you'll find Flying Saucer Attack.

"I hated that '80s rock sound, and it's sort of spilled over into an
irrational hatred of digital," says Dave. "I don't even own a CD player. I just
can't relate to CD's. It's not so much the way they sound as the things
themselves, those horrible plastic boxes".

"A piece of vinyl is a physical object, you can see the songs," concurs
Rachel. "With a CD, it's like a satellite's beaming the music into your room."

"I am a very miserable person, right," says Dave, in his peculiar mix of
forthright declamation and self-deprecation. "Records are your friends. You can
look at the song you're hearing, it's physically there in the spirally groove."

For all their four-track recording fetish and ever-so-slightly hypocritical habit of putting slogans like "CD's destroy music" on the CD version of their LP's, FSA are not total Luddites. They like some digital music, in particular Mo' Wax style trip hop. On the B-side of "Outdoor Miner", you'll find "Psychic Driving"--for FSA, an unusually rhythmic outing verging on a guitar-noise/trip-hop amalgam.

"Sometimes we just like to do something a bit silly, throw some ideas in the
air. I started with this sound like a cymbal, but it's actually a snare fed
through a distortion box. It sounded a bit like the Aphex Twin so I thought 'hey,
a dance track, why not?'. Then Rachel salvaged it."

In just over two years, FSA have put out four albums (two studio LP's
plus a pair of compilations of singles/B-sides/oddities); in the process, they've
pretty much honed to perfection their thang, the beatific noisescape. Now they
seem aware that it's probably time to veer sideways out of the potentially
entropic cul de sac of pure ambience, and embark on a new, more rhythm-oriented
direction. When it comes out in November, the fourth LP/second compilation
(provisionally titled Distance 2) will serve to wrap up their work so far,
closing one chapter of FSA and leaving the future wide open.

But back to the present. Any last words for Menswear?

"Colin Newman is onto you."

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Village Voice, 18 November 1997

by Simon Reynolds

Damn and blast the Verve. I'd sworn never to fall again for that classic-rock godstar-savior-shaman shtick, that it was gonna be dance music's desiring-machines and anonymous collectives forever and ever, amen. But here comes the MTV buzz-video/U.K. Number One, ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, and I can feel that old-time redemption rock rainin' down on me.

Strangely, other dance fanatics dig the Verve too; in songs like their second U.K. Number One, ‘The Drugs Don't Work’, the group resonates with a generation that knows the rave dream is a lie but keeps on taking the bad medicine. All year long, the dance mags have been running articles with titles like ‘Are Drugs Driving You Mad?’ that ponder the psychic fallout from ten years of dance-drug culture. Recent musical manifestations range from the mind wreckage of Tricky's three albums to the Chemical Brothers' ‘Setting Sun’, with its Noel Gallagher lyrics — "The visions we had have faded away... You said your body was young but your mind was very old." Like the Verve, Oasis are trad-rockers strangely popular among ravers, partly because of their just-say-yes lifestyle and partly because of the ravelike mass euphoria of their megaconcerts. And it's Oasis's endorsement of their old tourmates the Verve that has helped propel singer Richard Ashcroft & Co. to their current U.K. heights.

Strangely, though, the Verve were being touted as future superstars years before the Gallagher bros. showed their surly visages, hyped in 1992 alongside Suede as the glamorous antidote to self-effacing shoegazing bands. Actually, the Verve sounded decidedly dream-poppy — guitarist Nick McCabe eschewed riffs in favor of sustain-heavy trails of tone color. But what their fab early singles — ‘One Way To Go’, ‘Feel’, the Icarus-complex anthem ‘Gravity Grave’ — really reminded me of was Simple Minds. Not an alluring reference for Americans, I know, but I'm talking about the pre-U.S. breakthrough Simple Minds of 1982's New Gold Dream. Ashcroft's wide-screen imagery — all "new horizons" and "fiery skies" — had the same reaching-out-for-lofty-intangibles aura as Jim Kerr on ‘Promised You A Miracle’ and ‘Glittering Prize’, and both singers came over like a chaste and bluesless Jim Morrison. Another reference point was Mike Scott of The Waterboys — whose wonderstruck ‘The Whole of the Moon’ became an anthem on the acid house scene, believe it or not.

Like Simple Minds and the Waterboys, the Verve's music has the epic contours of classic rock but none of the r&b ‘substance’; McCabe's guitar functions more like a surrogate string section or synth. So it's not such a leap from previous Verve terrain to the sample-based sweep of ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, which, despite its minuscule lift from an orchestral version of ‘The Last Time’ and outrageous Allen Klein-imposed credit "written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards", sounds closer to Scott Walker than the Stones. That said, when the Verve played Irving Plaza last Wednesday, it was all a tad too trad for my liking — a reversion to the anthemic-not-ambient bluster of 1995's sophomore LP, A Northern Soul. Too often, as the band wielded the kind of girth it takes to fill arenas, you could hear the specter of the later Simple Minds.

The Verve strenuously strove for the sort of blazing heights achieved effortlessly the night before at the Plaza by the far from overtly transcendentalist Stereolab. They reached those heights, sure — the gig's peak, the upward spiraling, "never coming down no more no more no more" coda of ‘Drugs Don't Work’, was breathtaking. But halfway through the set, I began to experience the same sensation of grandeur fatigue provoked by a recent visit to the Grand Canyon. In your living room, the Verve's religiosity is somehow much more palatable: the high points of the new album Urban Hymns, twinkle with a panoramic poignancy that suggests the Stones' ‘Moonlight Mile’ produced by Eno circa The Unforgettable Fire.

Back in Britain, where the Verve have become stars as much for their storytelling as their soundpainting of "emotional landscapes" (copyright: Bjork), Ashcroft is being garlanded as a populist poet in the Lennon mold, an Everyman-ish boy who's Really Sayin' Something. Don't know about that, but while the words aren't especially profound or even well phrased, they have a rough-hewn ring of autobiographical truth that compares favorablv with the audience-insulting doggerel cobbled together by Noel Gallagher. The Verve are Oasis with ‘content’, in fact. Ashcroft oozes that cocky North of England-bred self-belief that is Oasis's sole sales shtick, but he also gives the impression that he believes, or desperately wants to believe, in something bigger than his skinny self. He's a bit of a seeker, our Richard, and in the Age of Irony, such earnest ardor is refreshing. I just hope the Verve's quest doesn't culminate in another ‘Don't You Forget About Me’.

THE VERVE, interview
The Observer, 26 July 1992

"When you live in a place like Wigan, your senses aren't exactly bombarded with stimuli," says Richard Ashcroft, lead singer of Verve. "So when you make music, you don't want to reflect your environment, you want to create something bigger than what you see around you. If it's a rainy day and you’re stuck in a cramped rehearsal room with no windows, you want to rise above the dreariness. That's what we want our music to do – transport the audience beyond the everyday."

In the alternative rock scene, realism is back in fashion. Bands such as The Levellers and Carter USM have built up huge followings with their rabble-rousing anthems about social immiseration and mundane tribulations. But Verve go against the grain. Unabashed escapists, they believe that music should be about transcendence and ascension; that it should propel the listener out-of-this-world.

"I've had enough of Billy Bragg and that brand of social realist pop," says Ashcroft. "I’ve got enough shit going on in my life, I don't want to be reminded of how dismal everything is. I want to be elevated, not dragged down."

The Verve songbook is crammed with synonyms for 'high' and 'fly'. And their next single, due in September but as yet untitled, is all about Icarus, the boy who tried to fly to the sun. "I think about that guy a lot," grins Ashcroft. "I know he plummeted to his death, but at least he tried. He had the spirit and the willpower."

Verve are not totally alone in their Icarus-like quest for glory. They are often mentioned in the same breath as Spiritualised and Levitation. All three groups brilliantly combine radiant neo-psychedelia with visionary lyrics teeming with lofty abstractions and spiritual intangibles. "There is a mystical vibe to our music," admits Ashcroft, "but not in the sense that I'm stating my beliefs, more of me wanting to know the answers. I'm trying to find out what's going on, but I haven't got any deep philosophy. I'm just grasping for something. It's more about curiosity and a sense of wonder."

With their hunger for experience, their longing to "kiss the sky" and "set the controls for the heart of the sun", Verve very much partake of the spirit of the late Sixties. Musically, the lustrous tumult generated by guitarist Nick McCabe, bassist Simon Jones and drummer Peter Salisbury sometimes recalls Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. And Ashcroft's dazed, awestruck stage presence has been compared with the original rock shaman himself, Jim Morrison. His charisma sets Verve apart from the hordes of 'ordinary bloke' bands doing the rounds. Ashcroft has no truck with the punk-derived idea that ‘anyone can do it’.

"I don't want to pay five quid to see a bunch of kids bouncing about on stage looking just the same as the kids in the audience. You want to see someone with presence, you want to be blown away. You want to witness something bigger than you could ever hope to create."

Verve also reject the old punk tenet that less is more. Their songs are unashamedly epic. On their latest EP, the nine-minute 'She's A Superstar' and 11-minute 'Feel' undulate and escalate, attaining a majesty far beyond the bounds of the three-minute single.

"If we play something that moves us, we like to dwell on it, to sustain that feeling. Our songs are bigger in every way. So many groups are totally constrained by the three-minute format. The attraction of our band is the abandon. People feed off a band when they know you have no boundaries. They want to see how far you'll go. And we're going all the way."